In September 2011, Yann Benétreau-Dupin arrived at Western to pursue his PhD in Philosophy. Yann was one of the two recipients of the Rotman Institute of Philosophy Doctoral Entrance Scholarship, a $10,000 scholarship offered to students of with outstanding performance history and achievements, and who specialize in the study of philosophy and science.

In October, Yann was named a recipient of an Ontario Trillium Scholarship, a highly prestigious award worth $40,000 per year for up to four years. The Ontario Trillium Scholarship program was introduced in 2010 to raise the profile and prestige of Ontario universities internationally, and bring highly-educated individuals, like Yann, to the province. Yann was nominated by the Department of Philosophy based on his scholarly achievements and strong research potential.

Yann reports that the “the presence of the Rotman Institute is […] one of the reasons I chose Western, as it provides a promising place to pursue my research in collaboration with scientists and to develop more interdisciplinary projects in science education.”

The interview with Yann below took place via email in 2012.

Rob Read: Can you tell me a bit about some of the work you’ve been doing since coming to Western in September?

Yann Benétreau-Dupin: Since coming to Western, I have mostly done coursework. I took classes on the philosophical foundations of modern physics, general relativity, the history of medieval logic, the philosophy of probability, and the pro seminar for 1st year Ph.D. students. I was also able to attend one of the many reading groups (on the philosophy of physics) in the department. And I have been busy TAing for an introduction to philosophy class.

I also joined a small reading group, with Melissa Jacquart and lead by Prof. Chris Smeenk, in which we survey research topics on the philosophy of cosmology.

At the same time, I helped finish preparing a conference grant proposal that has then been submitted to the National Science Foundation in the United States. The proposal has now been accepted and I am glad to report that this coming fall, at Boston University, a three-day event will be held, centered around the question of how the history and philosophy of science can contribute to contemporary U.S. science teaching.

Rob Read: Congratulations on the success with the grant. Can you tell me more about that collaboration?

Yann Benétreau-Dupin: Thank you. This conference (next Dec. 7-9, at Boston University) is a collaboration between the Center for Philosophy and History of Science (CPHS) and the School of Education, which are both at Boston University. Alisa Bokulich, director of the CPHS and professor at the department of philosophy, and Peter Garik, professor at the school of education, are the principal investigators for this grant.

The expected outcome of this event is to define a research agenda to evaluate the value and role of the history and philosophy of science (HPS) in the science classroom, particularly in the context of U.S. National Science Education Standards and the associated state standards, in K-12 and secondary education.

The belief that teaching HPS in the science classroom is beneficial for students is widely held. It is supported by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (Science for All Americans, 1990) and the National Academy of Science (National Science Education Standards, 1996, and more recently Framework for Science Education, 2011). These documents constitute major guidelines for state standards in education. Nevertheless, the hypothesis that teaching HPS in the science classroom has value for meeting such standards and, in general, positively contribute to science teaching has little evidential basis.

Moreover, HPS can play distinct roles in the science curriculum, and in order to clarify how science education standards can translate into classroom activities, it may be helpful to examine what distinguishes these roles. From a teaching perspective, it is not always clear when HPS has more to say as part of a liberal education that aims at forming an informed citizenry and studies the interaction between society, science, and their values, as opposed to as a discipline that contributes to the conceptual learning of science and model-based reasoning.

We wish to address these issues by gathering scholars in HPS, scientists, educators, and education researchers to set a research agenda, or rather three agendas:

  • – curriculum-centered: What aspect of HPS to integrate to the science curriculum, and for what purpose?

– student-centered: What impact does HPS have on students’ learning?

– teacher-centered: What preparation is required for science teachers to integrate aspects of HPS in their teaching?

A one-day public conference will precede this two-day workshop. This public event will be part of the Boston Colloquium for Philosophy of Science, and will hopefully engage a larger audience of the greater Boston area and beyond and offer, through talks, panels, and discussions, an overview of the development of the research on HPS and science teaching over the last decades and its current state.

The organization committee includes Prof. Michael Matthews (UNSW, Australia), author of Science Teaching (1994), founder and editor-in-chief of the journal Science & Education, and founder and past-President of the International History, Philosophy and Science Teaching group, and Prof. Richard Duschl (Penn State), past-president of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching and co-editor of Teaching Scientific Inquiry (2008), which constituted an important reference for the National Academy of Science’s new Framework for Science Education.

We would like this event to strengthen the HPS and science teaching community, hopefully here also at Western!

Rob Read: This event sounds like an exciting debate on some pressing issues in science education. Clearly you have a strong interest in science education, especially at the secondary level. In the past you’ve taken part in a project to help secondary physics teachers become more proficient in physics concepts and teaching strategies, by merging physics content with readings from the history and philosophy of science, and the education research literature. You’re also an assistant editor for the journal Science & Education. Can you talk a bit about what draws you to this kind of work, and whether you see opportunities for similar secondary science teacher training here in Ontario?

Yann Benétreau-Dupin: As a kid, at school, I sometimes felt uncomfortable with the way science was taught. Only rarely was science presented as an activity, a creative, inquiry-based process, let alone experienced that way. In France, I have worked in organizations that promote hands-on, inquiry-based science teaching (in particular in astronomy). I helped train science teachers, met with education officials, helped create programs through which secondary school students would have the opportunity to develop their own projects and conceive and perform their own experiments, often in collaboration with professional scientists. That way I could address the concern I had as a pupil, but also I was able to learn some science myself, in a setting I felt was missing in the classroom.

My training in philosophy of science now provides me with other ways to contribute to science education. I was very fortunate to have been involved in a teaching project at Boston University’s School of Education, in which science teachers were taught physics and how to teach physics with the usual lectures and lab sessions, but also by studying the historical development of theories. By reading about the conceptual hurdles that had to be overcome at earlier stages of a theory, these teachers would hopefully better realize what difficulties their students face and what effort they have to go through in their learning.

Here at Western, such projects could take different forms:

– intervening in classrooms in the London area,

– creating documents and pedagogical tools (see e.g., M. Clough et al., The Story Behind the Science),

– offering seminars in HPS for science teachers, for in-service teachers as part of their professional development or, if done in collaboration with the Faculty of Education, for pre-service teachers. Secondary teachers in Ontario have to attend professional development sessions each year, and such an offer could perhaps take place in this context, perhaps even in the form of a half- to one-week-long summer school (akin to what Notre Dame University offers).

In Ontario, as well as in most of Canada, official science framewo

rks explicitly recommend to include in the curriculum discussions on the role of evidence, theories, and paradigms in the development of scientific knowledge, and its historical development. Here, I think that philosophers have a role to play, particularly at the Rotman Institute.

Rob Read: Your passion for the role of history and philosophy of science education is impressive. Changing directions now, can you tell be about your research related to philosophical issues in contemporary cosmology? I understand you are examining to what extent the uniqueness of the universe challenges cosmology as a science?

Yann Benétreau-Dupin: I am interested in considering in what way the very nature of the object of study of cosmology, the only and entire universe, challenges the scientific status of cosmology, if at all. We usually think of physical laws as applying to a multiplicity of objects or a multiplicity of cases. Cosmology as a science, however, aims at describing and explaining a unique object, its structure and evolution. We may wonder whether this fact isolates it from the rest of physics, whether it should be included among the descriptive, historical sciences rather than other fields of physics.

Voices are sometime raised expressing doubts about the mere possibility for the study of a non-repeatable phenomenon to be called science, or at least about the possibility for it to yield physical laws (see e.g., works by M. Munitz, G. Ellis, or M. Disney). But it is not clear why it should be so. With the study of such a particular object, the distinctions on which such critiques rest and that are usually made in physics –  between the necessary (what pertains to the laws of nature) and the contingent (the initial conditions, accidental features of phenomena to be explained), or between laws and models – appear in a different light.

Beyond the question of the possibility of there being a science of a unique object, cosmology offers theoretical and philosophical challenges:

–  the difficulty to define its object, find a satisfactory theoretical framework to do so,

–  the difficulty to test our models (particularly because we only have access to a very small portion of the universe) and the role of fundamental assumptions (such as the Copernican principle),

–  the possibility to apply probabilistic reasoning to a single object,

–  the legitimacy to extrapolate local laws to the totality of the universe.

These questions, touching on issues of under-determination, modeling, testability are relevant to philosophy of science in general, but cosmology constitutes a particular case study, in which the uniqueness and all-encompassing nature of its object exacerbates methodological and conceptual difficulties.

Rob Read: These kinds of philosophical questions, especially ones concerning cosmology and physics more generally, don’t always seem welcome. Witness the recent controversy between the philosopher David Albert and the physicist Lawrence Krauss. This ‘kerfuffle,’ as Jim Holt points out in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, is just the most recent in a number of recent slanders thrown at philosophers generally, and in many cases, philosophers of physics specifically. I’m thinking also of Stephen Hawking’s repeated assertions in the past few years that philosophy is dead. What do you make of this apparent animosity between philosophers and scientists? Clearly it’s not universal, but what do you think incidents such as the above indicate?  How can apparent schisms like these between humanists and scientists be bridged?

Yann Benétreau-Dupin: Beyond unfortunate ad hominem attacks and uninviting appearances, I would have to know what the schism is about before I can try to give an answer. Consciously or not, scientists take philosophical positions, make philosophical points, and read works that contain philosophical arguments. When scientists say something about the value of a method, the meaning of an experiment, define when something counts as good science or not and why, they are entering philosophical territory. Whether or not these endeavours are pursued by science-minded philosophers or philosophy-minded scientists is secondary. These labels are fairly recent anyway. When working on such issues, what matters more is whether or not one is sufficiently informed about the science at stake, its history and conceptual underpinnings, and demonstrates  enough intellectual rigor. That being said, I don’t really know what these disputes are about and I don’t think that a debate starting with invective and the dismissal of an entire field of research is worth entering.

If the purpose of this discussion is to delineate the respective scope and value of the two disciplines, it would be more fruitful, I think, to start by asking when one is philosophizing or doing science, what that means, and whether or not the two are exclusive. Maybe if a debate were to start in these terms, and if more scientists were invited to partake in it (as part of their training for instance), we would find it more palatable and constructive.

Rob Read: I appreciate your hesitancy to become involved with what, at least from the outside, appears to have a component of mudslinging involved. What are you currently reading in your field?

Yann Benétreau-Dupin: For the past weeks and months, I have been surveying topics in the philosophy of cosmology, reading philosophy and physics papers. In addition to those I mentioned earlier, I wouldn’t know what paper, book or author to single out. But I can give you a few names and a brief list of topics of what is on my desk, that I have recently been working on or plan on reading in the coming weeks: works on general relativity (by Robert Wald, David Malament), dark energy (Dragan Huterer), issues in the under-determination of cosmological theories and models (Jeremy Butterfield, John Manchak), explanation and prediction in historical sciences (Carol Cleland), anthropic reasoning and the multiverse hypothesis (Ernan McMullin, John Earman, Sherrilyn Roush, and Bernard Carr).

Rob Read: What about outside your field, for leisure?

Yann Benétreau-Dupin: On my nightstand, I have a couple of books on voting systems: Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren’t Fair (and What We Can Do About It) (2008) by William Poundstone and Majority Judgment: Measuring, Ranking, and Electing (2011) by Michel Balinski and Rida Laraki. They explore the shortcomings of our current voting systems and discuss alternatives. I find this to be a fascinating area, at the crossroads of mathematics, game-theory, and social science: describing how the choice of a voting system affects the outcome of an election is difficult enough, but deciding what would be a “good” system (or the closest thing to it), and justifying why it would be so, is an even more daunting task! And I believe there is room for philosophers in these debates.

I am also reading books on very different topics. Because I recently moved to Virginia (my home when I’m not in London), I have been troubled to see monuments to the glory of Confederate officers. In order to try to make sense of it and understand a bit more the facts and legends surrounding this period of history, I am reading Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History (1996) by Alan T. Nolan. I have other history-related books on my nightstand: Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America (2008), by Steven Waldman, on the historical context behind the First Amendment of the US constitution, and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2004) by Jared Diamond that examines through historical cases the environmental and geographic factors behind the fall of past societies.

Rob Read: Tell me briefly about someone working in the field of Philosophy today who inspires you?

I have been inspired by previous teachers and advisors, in particular Alisa Bokulich and Jaakko Hintikka at Boston University, as well as Peter Garik’s contagious interest in HPS and science education. And I continue to find support from, and have invaluable exchanges with, the faculty members and graduate students here at Western. And I’m not just saying that because they might read this interview!

There are many philosophers or philosophical works that I find influential. In particular, I find Stathis Psillos’s work engaging, by its clarity, breadth, and by the consideration given to the views he disagrees with. Wendy Parker’s work is another example of a philosophical style I appreciate, for similar reasons. Both these authors touch on general philosophical issues in science, informed by its history and practice.

For his quality as a teacher, I truly find Michael Sandel inspiring. I’m certainly not the only one to feel that way about his classes.

Rob Read: Is there someone outside the field of Philosophy who inspires you?

Yann Benétreau-Dupin: I follow with great interest the work of Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. His public engagement as a scholar is admirable. And, of course, Stephen Colbert.